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From Napoleon to Liz Taylor: perfect pearl's $11 million journey

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"La Peregrina," the pearl, diamond and ruby necklace owned by Elizabeth Taylor on display during a preview of The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor at Christie's in New York on Dec. 1.

MIAMI – If there’s any woman in the world envied for her jewels and exceptional beauty, it’s Elizabeth Taylor. And this week the world was reminded of her wealth, her power and her ability to get the best out of men, including love and gems.

Christie’s sold a 55-carat pearl known as “La Peregrina,” a tear-shaped gem that Richard Burton gave Taylor in early 1969, for $11.8 million at auction on Tuesday evening.

By the time Burton bought it, “La Peregrina” had already spent centuries traveling from the hands of a slave to Spain, France and the United States in an intense bidding war between Spain’s Royals, France’s emperor’s family and America’s millionaires.

“It has become the most expensive pearl ever sold at auction,” Rahul Kadakia, head of Christie’s New York Jewelry Department, told Telemundo News.


From Spanish royalty to Napoleon
La Peregrina was discovered in the early 1500s by an African slave at the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama. Its name means “rare,” or “special,” and it was offered to King Phillip II of Spain, becoming part of the crown jewels of the Spanish Crown.

At the time it was valued at 714,000 maravedí, a gold and silver coin currency brought to Spain by the Moorish Almoravids, which would be the equivalent of $8,000 U.S. dollars today.

La Peregrina was inherited by Phillip III of Spain and it passed from generation to generation of Spain’s royals.  But in 1808, when Jose Napoleon was named king of Spain by his brother Emperor Napoleon, the jewels of the Spanish Crown fell into his hands, and La Peregrina was one of them.

Jose Napoleon stole them all and gave La Peregrina to his wife, Julie Clary, who proudly showed it until the day the marriage ended. Napoleon then took the jewel with him to the United States, where he lived in New York City and Philadelphia.

Napoleon bequeathed the jewel onto Napoleon III, the ruler of the second French empire, who, after his deposition in 1815 - and later arrest in France - was sent to England were he sold La Peregrina to James Hamilton, later the Duke of Abercorn.

The late actress's legendary jewelry was auctioned off at Christie's in New York. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

The Duke bought the pearl for his wife, Louisa Hamilton, the Duchess of Abercorn, who lost it twice because the heavy jewel fell out of its necklace’s setting, but on both occasions the pearl was recovered.

According to Christie’s records, La Peregrina remained in the hands of the Abercorn until 1914.

Fast-forward to 1969, when it showed up at auction in Sotheby’s. Richard Burton and Taylor, who had married for the first time five years earlier, were both still enjoying the success of their movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf,” which Taylor won her second Academy Award for. 

Burton, evidently still in love during that first marriage (the pair later divorced in 1974, remarried 16 months later in 1976 and divorced again), went to Parke-Bernet galleries, one of the largest auctioneers of fine art in the U.S, on Jan. 23, 1969. The auctioneer had already acquired by the rare pearl from Sotheby’s, and Burton wanted it for his bride.

But Burton had a strong opponent to bid against: Alfonso de Borbón Dampierre, an envoy of the Spanish royal family whose mission was to get the jewel back to Madrid´s Royal Palace.

Despite Dampierre´s credentials, he was outbid by Burton, who offered $17,000 over what the royal family was ready to offer and took it home at the final price of $37,000.

An unexpected thief
Burton gave it to his wife on Valentine´s Day, and as had happened a century before, one day the pearl went missing from the couples´ suite at Caesar´s Palace in Las Vegas.

“I reached down to touch La Peregrina and it wasn’t there,” Elizabeth Taylor wrote in her book “Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair With Jewelry.”

“I glanced over at Richard and thank God he wasn’t looking at me, and I went into the bedroom and threw myself on the bed, buried my head into the pillow and screamed. Very slowly and very carefully, I retraced all my steps in the bedroom. I took my slippers off, took my socks off, and got down on my hands and knees, looking everywhere for the pearl. Nothing.”

And then, she thought not her husband but someone else in the suite may have it.

“I just casually opened the puppy’s mouth and inside his mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world. It was – thank God - not scratched.”

Perfect and not scratched it was, indeed. And today, after years traveling from one continent to another, from slave, to kings, to emperors and millionaires, it lives in the hand of an unknown bidder who at $11.8 million has bought not only a pearl, but history in the shape of a tear.  

Read this story in Spanish from Telemundo

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